Lent 2019 Day 38: Mark 13:1-37

Mark 13

Buckle up, it’s a long one

Abomination unto Desolation

The last time I wrote or spoke about this passage, my words were largely misunderstood. That being the case, though, I do not think that I should somehow avoid talking about such a passage. With that in mind, I’m going to dive right into it, just note that I would ask you read this charitably, dear reader.

The first thing we need to do as readers is understand the eschatological context into which Jesus is speaking. Eschatology is anything that references the end of the world or “the day” of judgment. Jesus walks out of the temple and immediately begins talking about the end of the world. The entire chapter is a discussion of what the end of the world looks like and how to see it.

The second thing we need to understand as readers is that the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached was an eschatological Kingdom. That is, it was a kingdom that would only truly come about at the end of the world. Yet, throughout the gospels, Jesus speaks of it both coming (future) and already here (present). This is one of the hardest of the foundational concepts in Christian theology to grasp, but it is key to understanding much of Jesus’ message about the Kingdom. The Kingdom is both here and still coming. It is both inaugurated in Jesus and yet coming to fulfillment at the end of history.

The third thing we need to examine is how the Gospel writers, indeed the early church as a whole, understood Jesus’ death and resurrection. They understood it in many different ways, and with many different impacts, to be sure, but one thing I want to highlight is that they understood the death and resurrection of Jesus to be an eschatological event. Indeed this is behind much of the early church’s expectation (as you can read in various letters) that Jesus would return soon and the end of the world would come with it. It was only after some years, when the world did not end, that many of the authors had to reexamine their beliefs (and this may have resulted in 2 Thessalonians and the Revelation of John. There are a few key characteristics, beyond Jesus’ words, that would lead them to come to that conclusion. The first was that the sky would be darkened at the end of the world (and this happened, as recorded in other gospel writers); even Jesus makes mention of this belief. The second was that there would be earthquakes, which happened at the resurrection as well. Jesus does warn, however, that these two things by themselves are not a direct sign of the end of the world (but rather, birth pains).

The big piece, however, and the one convincing aspect, was that the dead would be raised to a new life at the end of the world. In Matthew’s account, the moment Jesus died, not only did the temple curtain split, signaling a new era, not only was there an earthquake, but lots of other people came out of their tombs. Matthew mentions, and then has absolutely no follow up on these other people, prompting us to wonder. But, if the death and resurrection of Jesus was an end-of-history event, then surely this would be expected. Yet history continued on.

The broader understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus became that this event was like a lightening bolt in history. It was like the end-of-history broke through in a quick glimpse at the resurrection of Jesus, but offered only a glimpse. The raising to life of others were like the riplings of thunder as God temporarily splint space-time asunder to call forth his Son. This is why we can have ultimate confidence. We’ve caught a glimpse of the end. God showed us the last page. And on that page we see Jesus standing triumphant over death. We need not fear death too much, for it is only temporary, and Christ has already defeated it. This is is all part of the background.

The last thing we need to examine is what is meant by the “abomination unto desolation.” It’s an odd phrase. To be sure, many contemporary “end times” preachers have sought to give a wide variety of interpretations of what this is. What is consistently missing from most of these accounts, though, is a recognition that Jesus did not speak into a vacuum. That phrase “abomination unto desolation” already had a specific reference in the Jewish mindset before Jesus ever spoke it. It was mentioned first in the book of Daniel as a clear reference to the desecration of a holy place (i.e. the corruption of the temple by some specific act).

In the book of Maccabees, part of the “apocrypha” or “deuterocanon,” it describes (in part) an historical episode in the life of the Jewish people. The history, in broad swaths, is that, following the return to Jerusalem under Cyrus and the Persians, Persia was taken over by Alexander the Great (and with it, all of that territory). Once Alexander died, the territory was split up between his four generals. Two of them, or rather the mini-nations that resulted from this split, Ptolemy and Seleucus, fought over the area containing Jerusalem due to its strategic military and economic position. The Seleucids eventually won control and Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned ritual sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. Instead, he went into the temple and offered a pig as a sacrifice to his pagan gods. That act was the “abomination unto desolation” and it set off the Maccabbean revolt (that resulted in relative independence until the Roman general Pompey came on the scene). From then on, throughout the early centuries for Jewish thinkers and authors, “abomination unto desolation” referred to that specific act.

With all of that background, we should now revisit the words of Jesus. Jesus declares that when you (e.g. the audience there that day) see the “abomination unto desolation standing where it does not belong” (e.g. you see the horrific atrocity of a pagan group through their sacrifice) you will know that the end of the world has come. Jesus is referencing, in other words, himself. His own sacrifice will be seen as such an abomination.

The Romans were known for being a blood thirsty people. They loved the torture of others and used execution like crucifixion as a tool to demonstrate their superiority as the Empire. Caesar was in charge, and all who dare to argue for another ruler or another Kingdom would be executed in brutal fashion. While Jewish leaders may have played a role, ultimately the execution of Jesus was carried out by the Romans. He was executed for one charge and one charge only: sedition. This is the abomination. Later, Paul reminds the early church that “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree“. The Romans took the Holy One of God and crucified him, thus securing his fate as cursed.

Yet God took that instance and, in that moment, it was Christ taking on our curse. And as Christ, dying with our sin and curse, was on the cross, so our own curse under sin and the law was killed with him. When Christ was raised, following the abomination, the curse stayed dead. So Christ’s words here are not a guidebook to the end of the world, but a way for us to read his own death and resurrection. What Caesar intended to use for the destruction and desolation of Israel, God used to redeem the world. As when Antiochus was subject to a revolt for his actions, so too would the death of Christ inaugurate a new Kingdom in opposition to the Kingdoms of this world. Unlike the previous one, this would be a Kingdom without end and would include all nations. If any die with him, we will also live with him.

close up of hand feeding on tree trunk
Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

*Note: when I originally spoke about this, and wrote about it, I was unaware of any other interpreter who had reached a similar conclusion. I have since come to be aware of at least two New Testament scholars, Professor David P Scaer and Professor Peter Bolt, have reached the same conclusion. My work was done independent of theirs, and, as far as I can tell, their work was independent and unaware of each others. So while I did not rely upon either, it is nevertheless encouraging to note that there have been numerous, more learned scholars than myself, who have reached the same conclusion.

**Extra note: this should not be misinterpreted in any way (as was, unfortunately done to me previously) to mean that Jesus is the anti-Christ. That is a ridiculous statement. Of course the Christ cannot be the anti-Christ. Discussions of the anti-Christ deserve their own separate post, but, suffice it say, anyone who acts against the cause of Christ assumes the role of anti-Christ.